Buses, especially their fares, were a major campaigning issue in the May 1981 West Midlands County Council elections. In control of the council since May 1977, the Conservative Party had set great store in reducing the subsidy paid by ratepayers to the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive. This resulted in fairly heavy fare increases most years, with a consequent loss of passengers, forcing the PTE into making cutbacks, most notably in October 1980. Labour, on the other hand, proposed increasing the subsidy to enable fare cuts to take place, citing the example of South Yorkshire PTE, where fares had been frozen since 1975, resulting in ever increasing passenger numbers. Possibly as a result of this but I suspect more likely to be due to the increasing unpopularity of Margaret Thatcher’s government during it’s first term of office, Labour won the election, mirroring the more heavily publicised result in the Greater London elections, which resulted in Ken Livingstone’s “Fares Fair” fare cuts (a link that would have repercussion’s a year latter!)
Conscious that the increasing bus fares were making them unpopular, the Conservatives organised Monday Fundays, basically offering 10p flat fares on all WMPTE buses within the County on Mondays. This was immensely successful at attracting passengers, the West Midlands roads emptying of traffic on the first Monday, as everyone went to work by bus instead! The 159 from Birmingham-Coventry was inundated with passengers, many duplicates having to be provided, some by passing Meriden as 959’s (a number used for a Limited Stop service briefly in 1976). As successful as it was, it wasn’t enough to stop Labour’s victory in the elections, the “experiment” ending soon after.
However, Labour’s plans were more elaborate! From September, Bus & Train fares were reduced by 23%, including Travelcards. Most controversially, however, was the introduction of a flat 2p fare for children. Obviously designed to lower travel costs for families (interestingly, a similar motive behind National Express West Midlands recent introduction of an Off Peak Daysaver Child Add on ticket!) but bus drivers were soon complaining that they were being used as baby sitters and some of the young passengers were less than well behaved. But from my perspective, it was paradise! A handful of two pence pieces in my pocket allowed me a day’s wandering all over the West Midlands! Of course, some rate payers were less than impressed by the cost of all this, I remember my Uncle joshing that his rates were subsidising my wanderings! (There you are, political balance for those of you who think I’m a raving lefty!)
I remember my first bash armed with a load of 2p’s very well! It was about a week after the low fares had been introduced, I’d come over on the Saturday morning on the Midland Red (actually, very recently having become Midland Red North) X96 from Telford, catching a Metrobus for 2p on the 43 to my Grandparents in Smethwick. After a quick bacon sandwich, Nan gave me a load of two pences and off I went, catching a very full Volvo Ailsa on the 87 into Birmingham. In what was a notable feat of bad timing, the 87 had just been revised, being extended from it’s Great Charles Street City terminus around the loop to New Street used by fellow Dudley Road services 82 and new 88 since the August 1980 Warley revisions. The last of the Dudley Road short workings, the 86 to Oldbury, which made a 10 minute service when combined with the 20 minute 87 through to Dudley, was withdrawn. The 86’s demise saw the 87 increased to every 15 minutes throughout but of course, this meant a reduction in the number of buses on the busier section, not wise when a fare cut had seen passenger numbers surge! Anyhow, I alighted from the Volvo in New Street and walked down to the Bull Ring Bus station, where I caught a Fleetline on the 120 to Dudley, one of my favourite routes, which heads out along the Hagley Road & Sandon Road to Bearwood, then heads through Londonderry and Langley into Oldbury, then heading out through Rounds Green and up the steep City Road into Oakham, then onto Dudley.
By the time I arrived in Dudley, it was beginning to get dark but unperturbed, I discovered a Stourbridge based, ex Midland Red D13 Alexander bodied Fleetline on the 294 heading back to it’s home town, which I caught. The 294 started back in December 1976, as part of a large revision in the Dudley area. It followed the main 245/246 Wednesbury/Dudley-Stourbridge trunk routes (operated by Hartshill Garage) as far as Brierley Hill, from where it replaced the 236 (Wordsley-Stourbridge) as far as Lye (as well as the peaks only 228 which followed the same route between Dudley & Lye). From Lye, the 294 served Pedmore Fields, providing this area with a through service to Dudley, before reaching Stourbridge. The 294 was crew operated when it first started, for it’s first six months or so, being operated by BMMO D9s made spare with the one manning of the 130 (Birmingham-Stourbridge). This was my first trip on the 294 and would be the last time I would travel on one of WMPTE’s D13s! After a joyous ride in the darkness aboard the nicely lit pink interior of the D13, I caught an ex Midland Red Leyland National on the 130 as far as Bearwood. I’d travelled on the 130 a few times before, generally finishing off a bash by taking one from Birmingham-Stourbridge and returning back to Smethwick by the single car DMU down to Stourbridge Junction and then by another, longer DMU back to Smethwick West, with an 86/87 the rest of the way. On each of these occasions, the 130 was operated by a standard PTE Fleetline, Stourbridge having a large batch of these in 1976, to convert the route to one man. This, however, was the first time I’d travelled on a National on the route. These had become common on the route over the past year or so and would continue to do so until the route’s replacement by the extended 9 in November 1983, Stourbridge continuing to allocate some Nationals on their share of the route (Quinton operating the rest) until the garage’s demise on 26th January 1985. At Bearwood, I caught an early PTE yellow ceilinged Fleetline on the 40 down to Soho, then walked back to my Grandparents.
Despite the fiasco with the 87, the new powers at the County Council instructed the PTE to reverse the policy of cutbacks. I noticed this on the first day of the October half term holidays, spotting a notice detailing changes to several Birmingham services. The 48 (City-Druids Heath via Balsall Heath) was withdrawn, the Druids Heath section being replaced by the extension of the much more frequent 50 from the Maypole (replicating the extension of the 50 on Sundays in the October 1980 cutbacks, when the 48 lost it’s Sunday service). I’d only travelled on the 48 once, about four months beforehand, after travelling all the way from Marston Green (reaching there on a Leyland National 2 on the 166 from Sutton Coldfield) on another Leyland National on the 185 to Kings Heath. Walking from All Saints Road to the City bound stop on Kings Heath High Street, a Fleetline was heading towards me on the 50 but behind was an ex London Transport DMS Fleetline on the 48, so I decided to get the later! That Balsall Heath stretch of the 48 was replaced by the rerouting of the 35 (Pool Farm) away from it’s Leopold Street route which (as described in Part One) the 35 would have been unable to serve anyway due to the construction of the Middle Ring Road, blocking it’s outward access to Moseley Road. Despite this loss (and it was an area mostly of factories which wasn’t really a great distance from the 50 at one end and the rerouted 35 route at the other), this meant that all the other sections of route gained increased frequencies, the 35 being increased from 15 minutes to the 48’s 12 minutes, whilst the 50, already the most frequent bus service in the West Midlands, at about every 4-5 minute, was increased even further to every 2-4 minutes!
Also improved were several services operated by Harborne Garage. The 29 from City-Northfield via Weoley Castle, had been introduced in the August 1980 South West Birmingham revisions, replacing the 22 (City-Selly Oak) as far as Weoley Castle and providing a through service to City from the Shenley Fields area, the last estate served by one of Birmingham City Transport’s 1960’s one man feeder services (the 20 in this case) to gain a through service to the City centre. Nevertheless, the 29 was provided with quite a basic service, no Sunday service being provided and just a half hourly service at other times, in contrast to the 22, which had run every 20 minutes. Also in contrast, the other traditional City Centre-Weoley Castle route, the 21 (City-Bangham Pit) had been substantially improved, being extended in City from the out of the way Paradise Circus Bus Station (where the 29 would terminate) and extended around the City loop, used by the other Broad Street services 3, 9, 10, 12 & 23. The 21 was also increased from a 20 to a 15 minute frequency and rerouted further into the Queen Elizabeth Hospital complex, replacing the single deck Fleetline operated 54 Hospital Circular. From October 1981, the 29 gained a 30 minute Sunday service, with the weekday service increased to 20 minutes. Although still terminating at Paradise Circus, the 29 would eventually circumnavigate the City loop from December 1982, gaining a 15 minute service in line with the 21 at this time. Funnily enough, despite originally being considered as the secondary service to Weoley Castle, subsequent improvements would see it eclipse the 21 and eventually outlive it! (Sadly, the July 2018 South Birmingham revisions have seen the 29 withdrawn, replaced by the rerouted 27 between Northfiled & Harborne, meaning that Shenley Fields is without a through service to City once more!)
Taking the 21’s place in the terminal bay at the Paradise Circus Bus Station back in August 1980 was new route 72. This was a half hourly Mon-Sat daytime service which followed the 21’s original direct route through the Queen Elizabeth Hospital complex before following the 29 along Quinton Road to Barnes Hill, then following the 12 to the edge of Bartley Green, then heading into a new joint Birmingham/Bromsgrove built (similar to Frankley & Hawkesley) council estate at Kitwell. October 1981 saw the 72 withdrawn and replaced by the new 20 minute frequency 22, from the City loop and then following the 12 through Harborne before following the old 72 route into Kitwell. With the 12 (every 10 minutes) and the 23 to Woodgate via Woodgate Valley South (every 20 minutes), this made a 5 minute service between City & Barnes Hill where the 23 branched off. This was a route I’d first noticed on the Monday of the October half term and I decided to ride it on the Tuesday, as I’d never got around to riding the 72. I caught one of the yellow ceilinged early PTE Fleetlines going out and upon arriving at Kitwell, decided to have a short walk around the estate before getting the next bus back. I discovered that the M5 lay just beyond the estate! The next bus was one of my beloved DMSs. Sitting upstairs at the turning circle (where I believe the last Bundy clock to be erected by the PTE stood!) I overheard two senior citizens downstairs being very complementary about the new service, although they were saddened by the lack of an evening service, saying that the estate’s young residents were effectively trapped there after dark! The evening & Sunday service would eventually come in 1986, a few months before deregulation, when the 23 at these times was extended to Kitwell as the 23A. This was short lived, as the surprising demise of the 12 at deregulation saw the 22 & 23 rerouted and increased to replace it, including a full evening & Sunday service on the 22.
Over the coming months, there were further increases in service, many of the routes that had lost their Sunday services in October 1980 regaining them. Another route to be reinstated, though in two separate parts, was the former 378 which, between May 1978 & October 1980, had run from Walsall-Erdington via Streetly & Kingstanding, which, avoiding Sutton Coldfield Town Centre, had always been quiet. The 378 returned running from Walsall-Longwood Lane, where countryside began on the road up to Barr Beacon (served then by the 376 & 377). Operated by Walsall Garage, the 378 was a regular haunt of that Garage’s Bristol VRs. From Streetly-Erdington, meanwhile, new service 118 was introduced. Operated by Sutton Garage, it was a regular haunt of Volvo Ailsas until Sutton’s closure in January 1984, when transfer to Miller Street saw it become regularly Metrobus operated.
The PTE services outside the county boundary obviously didn’t benefit from the fare cuts, leading to a huge jump in fares as buses crossed the boundary. The services to Wombourne were one such group, which suffered from the need for constant revisions to get the services viable. The December 1976 Dudley area revisions had seen the main, ex Midland Red Wolverhampton-Stourbridge 256 rerouted via the large village, alongside a new 255 variant, which served Cot Lane in Kingswinford, providing a combined 15 minute service. These replaced most of the ex Wolverhampton Corporation services that served Wombourne, apart from the 38, which carried on to the neighbouring village of Swindon. This became the 254, initially running half hourly, (with some peak hour journeys to the Heath Mill Industrial Estate, replacing service 86) but was reduced to hourly in 1978, the displaced journey being used for new service 252 to the new Pool House Farm estate, the 252 also taking over the Heath Mill journeys. The same revisions had also saw a new peak hour limited stop service, the 956, begin from Wolverhampton-Stourbridge via the main road, answering complaints about longer journey times from through passengers. I’d travelled on the 255 & 256 on a few occasions, becoming quite fond of the corridor.
In September 1981, the whole corridor was revised. The routes were renumbered from the Dudley 2xx series into the Wolverhampton 5xx series. The 556 was rerouted in Wombourne but otherwise was basically the 256. The 255 was withdrawn, however and the service along Cots Lane basically replaced by two new routes. The 554 was the 254 extended from Swindon-Wallheath (replacing occasional extensions of the 261 Dudley-Wallheath route to Swindon) then onto Stourbridge via Cot Lane. The half hourly service along here was maintained by new service 551, which continued to Wolverhampton direct via the main road, restoring an off peak service. The 956 meanwhile, was replaced by the 555 all stop peak only service over the same route.
I vividly remember my one trip over the extended 554, this being on a Cleveland Road (which continued to operate the service) Bristol VR, probably the last Wolverhampton based example of this marque that I travelled on, as the surviving examples would be concentrated at Walsall from 1983 onwards. It was the summer of 1982 and it was a gloriously warm day, all the windows of the bus were open and I sat on the front seat upstairs, enjoying the sights and sounds of the countryside! One perfect trip! The 551, meanwhile, was operated by Stourbridge (the 255 & 256 had been joint between the two garages, as the 556 continued to be) I did a couple of trips on this, one on a Fleetline and one on a brand new Metrobus Mk 2, Stourbridge being the second garage (after West Bromwich, Cotteridge was third) to receive them. The November 1983 Dudley & Sandwell revisions saw the corridor revised yet again, with the 554 losing it’s Stourbridge section and becoming an evening & Sunday Wolverhampton-Swindon service, with the 552 being extended to Swindon in the daytime (and a peak trip to Wallheath) in replacement. The 551 meanwhile, was rerouted via Wombourne, combining with the retimed 556 to provide a 20 minute service over common sections. The main road service reverted to peaks only with the 555.
I’m getting ahead of myself here though, as the reign of the fare cuts was short lived! As I stated at the beginning, the PTE’s fare cuts mirrored events that happened in London at the same time. Conservative Bromley Council challenged the Greater London Council over the fare cuts, or more specifically, the rate rises imposed on it’s residents to fund the fare cuts, in the courts. Despite the fact that South Yorkshire County Council had been pursuing a similar rate funded low fares policy since 1975, Tyne & Wear pursuing a similar, less well publicised policy and the West Midlands County themselves having pursued a similar policy from 1974 until the Conservative victory at the May 1977 County Council elections, the courts finding in favour of Bromley and declaring the fares fair campaign illegal in December 1981! The Greater London Council were thus forced to instruct London Transport to raise fares to previous levels. No doubt encouraged by this decision, Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council, along with Smethwick based engineering company GKN Sankey, applied a similar legal challenge concerning the West Midlands subsidies and, again, the courts declared the fare subsidies illegal! WMPTE was thus forced in March 1982 to raise fares by 67%, this being higher than the 23% reduction the previous October to cover the extra costs incurred by the reduction (Obviously the 2p child fare went!). Predictably, the result of the fare increases was a massive decline in passengers. However, as alluded to by myself above, the restoration of some of the cut services continued, this not been affected by the legal decision.
To help cushion the burden of the increased fares, the PTE introduced two new tickets in 1983.
The first was the Daytripper, a scratch card ticket similar to the National Bus Company’s Explorer introduced in 1981. Bought from PTE offiices, agents and Railway Stations, the passenger dated the ticket themselves and, as the name suggested, they were valid for the day (after 09.30 Mon-Fri. There had been a similar Family Day Ticket valid since 1980, this becoming the Family Daysaver at this time) I remember on my first Daytripper, I went to the estate of Pendeford, just outside Wolverhampton, for the first time. As the estate lay in Staffordshire, Travelcards weren’t valid (which must have limited bus use from the estate!) but Daytrippers were, so I took advantage of this, taking a Fleetline out on the recently extended 502 to the estate via Stafford Road & Wobaston, returning on the 538 via Blakeley Green & Whitmore Reans. I remember reading a notice on these buses stating that a third service to Pendeford was about to start, with the 504 to Rakegate via Stafford Road being about to be extended onto the estate. I’d ride that service the next time I was this way. I then returned to Birmingham by train and caught a 7 up to Witton Square, in order to catch the recently extended (in December 1982) 40, covering the route of the October 1980 axed 39 to Aston (which ran through to City) where it re-joined the original 40 route to Bearwood, which I took to Soho, then walking to my Grandparents. All the bus journeys that day, took place on standard PTE Fleetlines, illustrating the decline of acquired stock during 1983.
The second was a fortnightly Off peak Travelcard, introduced primarily to make travel cheaper for unemployed job seekers, though again, another useful ticket for bashing!
The political battle had not quite ended yet though. Both Greater London Council and West Midlands County Council both still believed in the value of public transport and intended to make fares more affordable, so both organisation’s undertook careful legal research to establish how they could subsidise lower fares legally. The research was successful for both councils, with London Transport introducing a cheaper zonal fare system whilst October 1983 saw WMPTE introduce a 32p maximum off peak fare (although the 159 Birmingham-Coventry service had a 64p off peak fare) with similar reductions to Daytrippers and off peak Travelcards. These reductions were legal in the way the 1981 fare cuts apparently weren’t but then, surely a judge wouldn’t make a legal decision purely for political reasons, would he?
The political battle wasn’t over though, as both the GLC and West Midlands County Councilwere to be abolished, both going in April 1986. And for the PTE, the deregulation of the bus industry from October 1986 saw a new, then wholly owned arms length company, West Midlands Travel, formed to operate the bus side of the undertaking as a commercial entity. Interestingly, WMT bravely choose to continue offering the 32p off peak fare commercially, a decision that paid off for the operator as they managed to maintain their commercial dominance in the County. That though, is another story!
For me personally, though, the political shenanigans of the early eighties was a fascinating time for me to discover the bus services of the West Midlands, the memories of these times will be cherished by me forever!